Why Protect a Massive, Remote Part of the Pacific?

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President Obama announced yesterday what could be a massive expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, originally created by President George W. Bush in 2009. While the president didn’t spell out all the details, the Washington Post reported that he might increase the preserve from its present 89,000 square miles to as much as 782,000 square miles of ocean waters and sea floor. Commercial fishing would be barred in that area, and presumably energy exploration as well.

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That all undoubtedly left a lot of people wondering why the president is so concerned about an area that’s farther from inhabited areas than any other spot on the planet. House National Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings immediately accused Obama of hurting the tuna fishing industry.  ”For years the Obama Administration has threatened to impose ocean zoning to shut down our oceans, and today the president is making good on that threat,” Hastings said in a statement.

But the expansion was praised by groups such the Redmond, Wash.-based Marine Conservation Institute, which in May issued a report on why the remote area is so important. It’s one of the few remaining large relatively pristine wild sections of the oceans, and it’s crucial to preserve such areas so that we have a baseline of what a healthy ocean ecosystem is supposed to look like, according to the institute.

Those waters provides a safe haven for large predatory fishes such as tuna, swordfish, marlin and sharks, whose numbers worldwide have been reduced by 90 percent over the past half-century by overfishing, and for 19 different species of sea birds. Five different species of protected sea turtles — including the leatherback turtle, one of the world’s largest marine reptiles, which is in danger of extinction — use the waters as migratory and feeding grounds, according to the institute.

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The sea bottom itself is also crucial. The expanded preserve would include an estimated 241 undersea mountains, which typically are hotspots of biodiversity, including potentially thousands of species that have yet to be discovered by scientists.

Finally, preserving a larger pristine area would make it easier for researchers to monitor the effects on climate change on the oceans, such as the ocean acidification that threatens coral reefs and smaller aquatic creatures who are a critical part of the oceans’ food chain.

Photo: Sharks and other large fish are common on most reefs throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Credit: NOAA